Unconventional and Effective

Democrats pulled off the first nominating convention of the Covid-19 era with a surprisingly compelling prime time presentation that probably won’t change many votes but managed to achieve a range of strategic and tactical objectives. When it became apparent late last spring that there would be no safe way to assemble tens of thousands of people in an arena in Milwaukee, Democrats were left pondering how to stage a spectacle without any of the elements of high drama. Their answer was to go small. Rather than try to reproduce the big stage on a video screen, they scaled down their presentation and offered a personalized and at times intimate convention that served as a resonant contrast to the chaos and uncertainty unleashed by a reality show president who has proved incapable of handling the crises that swirl around us.

Using a formula that interspersed highly produced video segments of ordinary people with live speeches and testimonials, Democrats hammered the twin themes of competence and compassion – the qualities that have been driving the election since the onset of the pandemic. They wisely chose to make a virtue of their 77-year-old standard bearer’s long record by casting it as a lifetime of getting things done, while Biden’s personal story of facing unthinkable loss but emerging stronger and with renewed purpose served as a not-too-subtle metaphor for what could be the future of America in the age of Covid. Kamala Harris offered promise to an emerging electorate that a new era is visible over the horizon. Michelle and Barack Obama reminded everyone of the obstacles to getting there if Trump’s anti-democratic behaviors successfully steal for him a second term.

The event culminated in a moving acceptance speech that far exceeded any address Biden had previously delivered. Walking out of the darkness to a lone podium on an isolated stage, Biden made the case against Trump’s incompetence and indifference without mentioning the incumbent by name, offering hope and purpose while speaking directly to the American people in a manner that channeled FDR’s fireside chats. It was presidential in the way Americans typically like to think of their presidents – commanding but relatable. He then clasped hands with his running mate to a backdrop of flashing car lights in a parking lot in Wilmington. These days, nothing is more relatable than that.

Will it move many votes? Probably not — there are few votes left to move. But did it matter? In a word, yes. At a time when pubic opinion is fixed and polarized, political conventions are primarily four-day infomercials for supporters, a chance to generate excitement for the newly minted ticket. Generating excitement is about generating turnout, and turnout is the most critical factor in this year’s election. Beyond speaking to supporters, the effectiveness of a convention can be measured in how well it shapes media narratives going into the general election.

The DNC was a huge success on both counts. People were mobilized and engaged. Over 122 million tuned in. There were almost 129 million individual video views on social media. Democrats raised $70 million in four days. Significantly, there were 700,000 unique visitors to the DNC website that helps people figure out how to vote absentee or in person, suggesting people heard the convention message that everyone needs to have a voting plan.

As strong as these metrics are, the convention’s most enduring effect may be successfully addressing and possibly neutralizing Trump’s strategy of painting Democrats as divided and extreme and Biden as sleepy and senile. I was in the hall four years ago when Bernie delegates were loudly mocking Hillary delegates, and I remember asking a Democratic operative on the first night if the divisiveness was going to be a problem. He said Democrats would present a united front by Thursday, and while his prediction came to pass, the acrimony never fully disappeared. This year it was nowhere to be found. Whatever substantive differences exist between party factions – and they do exist – there was general agreement that the time to address them is after the election. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both offered gracious and sincere endorsements of the Biden/Harris ticket. All hands were on deck.

It will be difficult for Trump to paint this ticket as extreme after a convention that featured a spectrum of speakers ranging from Sanders, Warren and AOC to Colin Powell and John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio. The strategic positioning of the campaign between left and center-right was a deliberate effort to appeal to the widest coalition of available voters while ceding the Trump vote to the inhabitants of Republican Island. Democrats understand that the electorate is divided 60/40 and appealed to the larger portion. They recognize that winning is an additive function.

Most of all, the convention took the air out of the Trump campaign’s attempt to define Biden as old and weak. The millions who tuned in saw a nimble and capable challenger, mentally sharp and energetic, someone who could more than hold his own in an intellectual exchange and walk down a ramp without assistance. There was even an oblique rebuttal to Republican charges of corruption with an appearance by Hunter Biden in the role of loving and appreciative son.

Next week, the RNC will attempt to undermine the Democrats’ message. This will require skill and the ability to override Trump’s instinct to feed his base and his ego. Trump needs to change the dynamics of the 2020 race, and as we saw this week, conventions can go flawlessly and still not do anything to alter the course of an election where the fundamentals are entrenched. But they can provide a party with a valuable strategic boost if they figure out how to amplify their strengths and undermine the opposition. Democrats accomplished as much this week by turning the loss of an in-person extravaganza into a personalized event that resonated with this difficult moment.